Indonesia and the Tech Giants vs ISIS Supporters: Combating Violent Extremism Online

The Indonesian government is cooperating more effectively now with private sector technology giants such as Google and Facebook to remove extremist content from social media platforms. Even as the hiccups in their relationship are being worked out, the extremists seem to be finding low-tech ways around blockages. The 8-9 May 2018 riot of terrorist suspects detained at the headquarters of the paramilitary police Brimob outside Jakarta showed the government’s ability to move speedily to address a spike in online violent extremist exhortations. It also showed how quickly extremists can transfer material to other platforms and mirror sites. The extremists’ wholesale shift to encrypted applications by 2014 made the government’s often clumsy efforts to close down websites seem anachronistic. The Information and Communications Ministry (Kominfo) realised it needed the help of the tech companies but found the companies had their own standards and guidelines for removal of material which differed from the ministry’s. After the owners of Telegram, the pro-ISIS extremists’ encrypted application of choice, failed to respond to Kominfo’s requests to remove material, the Indonesian government blocked Telegram’s web access, finally getting the company’s attention. New restrictions, coinciding with defeats of ISIS in the Middle East and the weakening of links between ISIS media channels and their supporters in Indonesia, led to a decline in the use of large, semi-public Telegram channels to disseminate propaganda. But the use of highly encrypted private small group and two-person chats over Telegram continues. As of mid-2018, government and social media companies have stepped up their efforts to detect and remove extremist content by using artificial intelligence and other tools to trawl the web. They also train their respective artificial intelligence (AI) machines to anticipate new tactics such as better encryption or other camouflage technology. While such innovation is commendable, most Indonesian ISIS supporters are not technologically sophisticated. Instead of responding with high-tech countermeasures, they simply create hundreds of back up channels and accounts, move their groups and channels regularly, and store terabytes of propaganda material across various platforms and devices. They are also exploring new encrypted messaging apps to prepare for the day when Telegram is no longer usable. The problem is that interactive small group discussions among extremists can also be a gold mine of intelligence that allows state agencies to understand how extremists think and make informed analyses about future threats. The challenge is how to manage intelligence-gathering and reduce the public’s exposure to extremist material online at the same time, through a combination of domestic regulations, new technologies and a partnership of government, the private sector and civil society.

Tags: Extremism, Facebook, Google, New Technologies, Telegram